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'This Is Not Your Country' - Identity And Nationalism Post-Brexit

05/12/2016 16:29 GMT | Updated 06/12/2017 10:12 GMT
Matt Crossick/Matt Crossick

"This is not your country" - my neighbour said to me 20 years ago after a louder-than-usual party the previous night. I was a newly-arrived student from Germany and acutely aware of how little it took for neighbours to turn fellow neighbours into "others" to assert their own rights and perceived privileges as citizens. An Irish friend came to my rescue, telling her that England wasn't his country either and that she should be ashamed of herself.

Now, after 25 years of living, working and raising a family in the UK, the same is happening again: friends and strangers are coming up to me to remind me how much I am part of this country.

What is at stake, and this is equally true for UK citizens living in Europe, is our sense of identity. Brexit has triggered an identity crisis. For many UK citizens Brexit has turned into a series of economic concerns. For me and my fellow three million EU citizens living in the UK it has cast a shadow over our entire lives.

What makes Britain home for us is the experiences we have had. Like many others I am not an economic migrant. I swapped life in a beautiful city in North Germany for a multicultural, tolerant and often very funny one in the South of England. Slowly my proud Hanseatic identity - my hometown of Lübeck used to trade with London in the middle ages - merged with my acquired Englishness and found a great home in Bristol where I now live. I am both a local there and in Lübeck where I grew up. I've worked my entire career in the UK and contributed hugely to its GDP. But my love for where I live now comes entirely from my relationships - with neighbours, friends, colleagues. My sense of self is a mixture of the things I love about Germany - food, friends, high standards of plumbing - and about England - my son and husband, humour, pub lunches and much more.

Reading through the 5000 plus life stories on the Facebook forum for EU citizens in the UK I sense many more of these composite identities. And I sense a deep attachment to the UK. Our group ranges from the German master craftsman who has trained hundreds of English plumbers over the years, the Finnish care home worker worried about not meeting new immigration criteria to the French professor. They include the Spaniard who was called to UK jury duty but not allowed to vote in the referendum and still has to apply for his residency.

Some of us don't know where we should be citizens. Dana was born in Budapest as a 3rd generation German immigrant, and was told repeatedly at home that she wasn't a "real" Hungarian. Now she feels excluded by her adopted British home and says, with an odd sense of satisfaction, that the only "acceptable" nationality for her is European.

Or consider families like mine where my husband is a British citizen born in Athens, his father a British citizen born in Kenya, me a German and our eight-year old son born in Germany. Our child has English as his first language but is not entitled to a UK passport as his father and grandfather were born overseas, in Her Majesty's service. Confusing? Unfair? All of those.

So now I and millions of fellow EU citizens living in the UK will have to apply for residency permits or even citizenship. The process feels overly complicated and expensive. Some of us have to ask our children's school to confirm that we are indeed picking them up every day to prove our continuous residency. Those who have moved to online systems for banking now find these records are unacceptable and need to pay their bank to reissue written statements for up to five years. Some get waved through by sympathetic officials, others find the process degrading and humiliating. What unites us is that we are all asking ourselves where our "here" as a citizen is: deregistered in our countries of birth, not allowed to vote in the UK referendum because we're "not from here."

Migration has been a feature of all human societies. This is true for the Cornish migrants who left their towns to find a better life in Australia and New Zealand as it is for the Polish migrants who left their homes to find a better life in the UK. Nationhood should never beat humanity.

Another member of the3million forum who is British and paying taxes in France for the last 40 years puts it well: "As for nationalism, I have no time for it. In France, do as the French do. Flags are silly." Divisions along the lines of class, education and ethnicity are destructive as are meaningless phrases like "ordinary citizens".

We need an enlightened, global civic society. The nationalism currently adopted by politicians all over the world is utterly useless when it comes to taming global capitalism gone wrong. Most of us wish for a fairer society with an even distribution of wealth, work and resources. Those feeling left behind need to know that those peddling this nostalgic, isolationist nationalism cannot and will not help them.